The 15-member Commission on Opportunity in Athletics will consider several proposals that would the ease the standards in the three-prong test used to measure whether high schools and colleges are complying with the 31-year-old gender equity law.
The commissioners "believe the three-prong test is a flawed but potentially powerful vehicle," said co-chairman Ted Leland, athletic director at Stanford.
Others would beg to differ, and the commission's session Wednesday evoked the passion typical of Title IX debates. Expecting to be outvoted, those in favor of the current standards got the commission to agree to include dissenting opinions in the final report that will be submitted next month to Education Secretary Rod Paige.
"To not represent both sides of the passion is a disservice of what we're going to give to the secretary," said commissioner Julie Foudy, a member of the U.S. women's national soccer team.
Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Its effect has been profound: The number of girls participating in high school sports rose from 294,000 to 2.8 million from 1971-02. The number of women in college sports increased fivefold over a similar timeframe.
The White House said President Bush "strongly supports" the law, reports CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer.
Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the law has "achieved great success in opening doors of opportunity for women and girls to pursue their dreams." Fleischer acknowledges the Title IX panel has "many diverse views."
In 1979, Title IX was clarified by the introduction of the three-prong test, with schools having the option to meet any of the prongs to comply with the law.
To meet the first prong, a school's male-female athlete ratio must be "substantially proportionate" to its male-female enrollment. For the second prong, the school must show an ongoing history of broadening opportunities for women. The third prong requires that a school show that it is "fully and effectively" accommodating the interests and abilities of women.
The first prong gets the most attention, and it's the only one that can be met using pure statistics with little or no subjective interpretation. Even so, there is still a substantial gap between the percentage of U.S. female college students (56 percent) and the percentage of female college athletes (42 percent).
The commission was to consider several changes to the first prong. Commissioner Debbie Yow, the athletic director at Maryland, proposed that schools be allowed a 50-50 split of male and female athletes, regardless of the student body makeup, with a leeway of 5 to 7 percentage points.
Other proposals would tie a college's male-female athlete ratio to that of local high schools, or keep the current standard but allow leeway of 3.5, 5 or 7 percentage points. Others would allow the use of surveys to assist in meeting prongs one or three.
Critics say these changes would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of sports opportunities for girls and women in high school and college.
The changes would represent such as significant change in the law that former Senator Birch Bayh, a chief sponsor of Title IX in 1972, said they would require an act of Congress.
"Members of Congress — who are going to have to run for re-election next year — I don't think they're going to change Title IX," Bayh said.
Critics say the Title IX has, in effect, punished male athletes to provide more opportunities for women. Roughly 400 men's college teams were eliminated in the 1990s, with wrestling taking such a blow that the National Wrestling Coaches Association has filed suit, claiming that the first prong has evolved into a quota system.
The commissioners approved several less controversial recommendations Wednesday, and there was no problem reaching a consensus on at least one topic: The Education Department must do a better job explaining Title IX's complex guidelines to colleges and high schools.
"That's why it's so confusing to the public," said Donna De Varona, a two-time Olympic swimming champion. "How do you understand it? That's why it's been so easy to position the arguments."
The commissioners were also emphatic that the Education Department start implementing sanctions against violators. The department has never punished a school for not complying with Title IX.
The commissioners also urged schools to stop overspending on sports such as football and men's basketball, whose budgets are cited as limiting opportunities in minor sports for both men and woman. Under Title IX, however, schools cannot be told how to spend their athletics money — only that they do it in a nondiscriminatory way.